tips on writing an autobiography

by Colleen Calmbach
(San Antonio TX)

Question: Writing a novel is like writing an autobiography because stories are being told on every page. What differs is the characters. They already exist and describing them can really be tough. And, of course, the stories must remain true to the facts.

I need help with part 2 of my book. The stories about roots and history have been told. I know I will draw on them from time to time but I am having a very difficult time with my subject matter from this point on. I see it in my mind as rooms--many, many rooms which contain painful events which I did not choose or want in my story.

I do not intend to make any judgments but I have to tell the true facts about the people in these rooms,the feelings involved, and how they changed the course--direction--of my intended journey through life.

Can I really create my plot outline for this part of my book in 8 easy steps?

Answer: One of the challenges with an autobiography is to find the story you want to tell. (A related issue is whether it is a story others want to read. But we'll skip that for the moment.)

Another challenge is that you may not have complete objectivity regarding your life. You may not realize what is really important about your history until you have done a lot of reflection.

A third challenge is that you are probably not used to thinking of your life as a story that needs to be shaped somewhat so the reader can find meaning in it. This means choosing to tell about events that are relevant and omitting those that are not.

One person's life is very complex and may contain any number of stories woven together. But for a narrative to be really solid, you have to find the golden thread of your life story that you want to base your autobiography on. An event is relevant if it is integral to this thread.

I would suggest that, before you work with the 8 elements, you consider how you will describe
your life story in terms of a dramatic arc.

You might look at the article on the W-Plot for reference (

Generally, the four acts of a biography are...

1. Childhood or the events and forces that shaped the beginning of the life and the person's character.
2. Challenges of youth, including emerging strengths, weaknesses, lessons, challenges, etc..
3. Working towards a defining moment. Typically, the defining moment is the point where the person accomplished something remarkable (or in some cases had a remarkable failure) which is what made them famous. The defining moment is the reason someone wants to read about this person.
4. The end of the person's life or the anti-climactic phase.

These correspond to the four acts of a dramatic arc...

1. Setup
2. Complication
3. Crisis
4. Resolution

Once you've identified your defining moment, look for the chain of events that led you to it. In addition, the four "acts" or stages, try to find your "drivers." These are the key turning points in your life, the events that sent you in a new direction.

Once you know the general thread of the story you are telling, you can apply the elements.

For instance, if your defining moment is an event that led to a particular triumph, then the goal is to achieve that triumph, the consequence is what would have happened had you failed, the requirements are what had to happen for the goal to be achieved, and the forewarnings are setbacks that suggested the consequence was drawing closer.

If your story is tragic, the consequence will have resulted instead of the goal.

All this doesn't mean you have to paint yourself as a heroic figure if that's not accurate. Sometimes requirements are met just because someone was at the right place at the right time. Other times, they are met because someone has the right character quirk or because a mistake turned out to be a lucky fluke.

The meaning for the reader lies in how your particular situation and your choices led to a particular result, and whether that result was positive or negative.

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